I would expect many of us who work in the industry remember the first time we visited a museum we have since grown to love, the first time we saw an exhibition that would change our perception or the first time we saw a piece of art that would impact our lives forever. There are many ways to experience a museum that cause us to look more closely at ourselves, change our behaviour or unearth a passion and those experiences stay with us. But there are also museum visits that satisfy a less lofty need; the need to partake in an experience and share it via social media. These experiences can sometimes be portrayed as inferior through the press and when discussing the goals of a museum, but does it really matter why someone experiences an exhibition as long as they attend?
Some of us may never know what initially drove us to attend a museum that eventually became important to us. For some visitors it may be pure chance that they attended a specific exhibition or event but for an increasing percentage of the population there is a very modern driving force behind the visit and that force is social media. The sharing of experiences and photography are on of the most common forms of social currency and many people will choose where to visit specifically because they can share the experience on social media.
In our modern, connected world we no longer have to wonder how to fill our hours; before we have had a chance to think about how to spend our leisure time we have already had hundreds of options shown to us by our various social media feeds and marketing campaigns. Whether it’s a weekly newsletter from Time Out with recommendations for “things to do in London”, a re-tweet of a friend sharing a new show the attended or a museum you already follow on Instagram showing off their current exhibition, the fight for our free time is never-ending and we no longer have to work hard to seek it out.
But is social media a positive influence in museums, driving new markets, increasing engagement and raising funds or is it killing a once revered pastime with selfies, shallow engagement and influencers? And most importantly does it really matter how you experience a museum as long as you visit?
Museums Influencers and the Age of Instagram
When Beyoncé and Jay-Z used The Louvre in their music video for Apeshit, the museum went on to have its record-breaking year attracting over 1.2 million visitors in 2018, a 25% increase on 2017. After suffering from well publicised terrorist attacks in 2015, the power couple’s decision to use The Louvre as their back-drop reminded the world that The Louvre was open for business, relevant and contemporary, despite its historically important collections. Americans especially returned in their droves, spurred on by the endorsement of one of the most recognisable celebrities in the world.
And whilst The Carters might be an extreme example of how influencers can impact a well-known tourist attraction there are many more examples of how influencers play a part in deciding how the public spend their time.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York has even gone as far as working directly with media influencers to improve its own social media following. The Met worked with Photographer and Social Media consultant, David Krugman on a project to improve its relationships with influencers including introducing its own hashtags dedicated specifically to Instagram influencers such as #EmptyMet and hosting nights where influencers could visit the museum for free and take photos uninterrupted specifically for their Instagram feeds. These influencers then shared their photos under the specialised hashtag and tagged The Met on Instagram encouraging their followers to visit their own museums and galleries and to seek out their own similar experiences and photo opportunities.
Dave Krugman’s enthusiasm for social sharing and Instagram in particular is extraordinary. When many museums constantly worry about engaging their visitors, Dave saw phone wielding visitors as creators curating their own experience rather than distracted, selfie-taking nuisances.
“Technological advances in mobile devices had ushered in a Golden Age of photography. There was now a thriving community of visually minded people documenting their world experience through their camera phones. Social media gave everyone a gallery to hang their work, a place to share and interact, to teach and to learn photography. Looking around the hallowed halls of this incredible institution, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were looking at their phones. But they weren’t bored, restless, or looking for a distraction. They were engaged, enthusiastic, inspired to create. These people were capturing the incredible experience of visiting the Met, creating their own art, and the people who follow them on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram could engage with the Museum vicariously.”
And while it might seem it’s only the internationally recognised museums that can benefit from social media influencers, don’t discount the power of the influencer on smaller museums either. Earlier this year Ruddington Village Museum in Nottingham, England, attracted close to half a million viewers from China when Vlogger and Museum and Heritage Development Student, Feixue Huangdu, visited the museum and took a virtual tour with around 434,000 viewers. Despite having only received around 75,000 physical visitors since 1968 the museum was delighted to find itself the focus of the webcast and have its profile raised by the event. Whilst the mainly Chinese audience may never visit the museum physically, the press and interest the story generated for the museum was huge and they are sure to see a rise in visitors after the story made national newspapers. For every small museum with an entry fee of £2.50 the smallest increase in supporters can make a huge difference and engaging any new visitors should be celebrated.
Can Museums be made for Social Media?
While many museums are embracing the age of the influencer as part of their overall marketing efforts there are some spaces specially created to bring in the Instagram crowd, cultural attractions where the impetus to visit is purely to create a feed full of beautiful images.
Some of these self-christened museums such as The Museum of Pizza and The Museum of Ice Cream may seem to push the boundary of what a museum really is but they still attract thousands of visitors each year and create a space for exploration, learning and collaboration around their chosen subjects.
These examples may not fit the Museums Associations definition of a museum as “Institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.” but there are a number of exhibitions, pop-up spaces and museum events which bridge the gap between social media pleasing and education in a way that continues to attract new audiences to difficult and vitally important subjects.
That Lady Thing is a pop-up exhibition which initially opened in San Francisco in 2018 and included content relating to a number of active political movements relating to gender inequality. Its main aims were to raise awareness surrounding issues such as wage inequality, objectification of women and lack of diversity in business management whilst also raising funds for The National Women’s Law Centre. Whilst on the surface this Instagram friendly pop-up looked like an influencers dream the deeper message of the exhibits was plainly obvious. From a climbing wall highlighting the difficulties of ascending the career ladder for women through to its wallpaper backgrounds complete with hidden messages on subjects as diverse as sexual harassment, imposter syndrome and pay inequality. Over 5 days the event played host to 3,500 people through special events, receptions and regular opening hours, was seen by over 116million people online and raised over $10,000 for its chosen cause. This Instagram heaven shared an important message which, even if not shared by every visitor, had a positive impact on their mission.
There are also a number of more traditional museums embracing the pop-up movement to open up their doors to audiences they do not normally reach. Whenever you branch out and communicate with a new market you have the opportunity to create a new visitor and future supporter and whilst it may seem at odds with your cultural aims, finding new blood to fund your mission and invigorate your museum for the future should be wholly welcomed.
The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt could never be accused of trivialising its content nor solely being interested in so-called Selfie Culture but its newest outing in the style of a pop-up museum boat harboured on the banks of the River Main is definitely expanding the idea of the traditional museum.
With daily talks, panel discussions, film screenings and free exhibitions taking place onboard the boat the aim is to reach an audience who may be inclined to visit for reasons other than to partake in a cultural pastime and turn irregular or unlikely visitors into supporters for the future. Their palm-tree laden deck complete with cocktails might be the sole reason for a visit but it might spark a connection to the museum which will last a lifetime. And even if the connection doesn’t last longer than a single drink and a selfie on the desk-chairs does it really matter? If the visitor enjoys the experience, shares the location on social media and it makes them a little more likely to visit a museum in the future does it really matter if they had the “full” experience as designed by the curators?
Is social media changing the way museums operate?
In recent years we have seen a huge change culturally in the way audiences engage with content, no longer happy to simply look at objects from a distance, museum visitors increasingly want to be included in the frame, to be a part of the content themselves and control their environments. This change may be shaping the way people behave within our walls but is it also changing the way we operate museums?
The most notable change I have seen in recent years which I believe is directly related to social media sharing is the changing approach to allowing photography in museum and heritage spaces. Museums, arts and heritage attractions may have been slow to take up social media in a professional manner but since museums began joining social media platforms the way those spaces operate have began to change alongside the increase in the importance of social engagement.
Many museums began utilising social media around 2009 and quickly came to realise that it offers a positive impact on their engagement with the public, whether that’s marketing new exhibitions, seeking donations or attracting overseas interest, the impact of social media has been a generally positive one. Since 2009 we have seen a number of these establishments removing barriers to sharing, repealing their no photography policies where appropriate and staging events specifically to encourage social sharing.
St Paul’s Cathedral joined Twitter in 2009 and has been experimenting with its digital marketing ever since. The well documented Twitter #cathedralwars with other religious attractions bought a modern edge to the historic location and it’s been working with a number of partners on improving its social media strategy and increasing its reach beyond its traditional visitors. Then in June 2019 it repealed one of its most long standing rules and finally allowed photography within its walls. As one of the most photographed locations in London from the outside its regularly shared on Instagram and other photo sharing sites but, by allowing photography inside, it may now attract a new type of visitor; visitors who are not attracted by the history or religious connotations but those looking to share their museum travels with friends, family and followers on social media.
With 95 million photographs uploaded daily to Instagram the trend shows no signs of slowing down and it would be remiss of museums to ignore the lure of Instagram-worthy exhibitions, events and spaces for potential visitors. If you’re denying visitors the chance to take photos and share to social media the chances are your limiting the reach of your marketing too. Small changes to your photography policy, working with a pop-up partner to take your museum out to less traditional locations and working to deliver events which attract a crowd can have a huge impact on how Instagram supports your museums aims.